The Triune Brain, how our brain has evolved so far

Firstly I would like to thank all of the lovely people who sent me such wonderful messages about taking care of myself and getting well soon. It is heart warming to read them. A couple of you asked about using NLP to help with health and I am certainly doing that. For example I was booked to deliver a session called “Running your own Brain” to a senior leadership group of 130 people last week. I used state management to ensure that I could perform however we need to remember that traditional medicine also has a place and it is unwise to try and ignore our body when it gives us messages.

Now for this weeks blog…

From an evolutionary perspective it can be said the brain has developed almost in a series of layers building gradually to where we are today.

It is suggested that the brain consists of three main parts that have been labelled the “triune” brain that can be traced back through our evolutionary history. It is worth noting that this theory is one theory only and is not accepted by all. For the purposes of this blog let us consider the possible metaphor this theory offers.

The three parts are made up of the “reptilian” brain, the “mammalian brain” and the “cognitive” brain.

As the name suggests the reptilian brain is the earliest part and we share it with animals including reptiles. It sits at the top of the spinal cord and regulates everything that runs automatically including breathing, heart rate, organ function and the biochemistry of the body. This part of the brain can persist even after a person is pronounced “brain dead” under some circumstances.

It has been suggested that the mammalian brain developed to manage relationships. One of the consequences of this stage in evolution was that animals began to produce “live” young rather than hatching eggs. As such the young needed to be cared for in order to survive. This part of brain is the “limbic system” which contains the amygdala. The amygdala is divided into two parts, one in each hemisphere and it is the amygdala that can both send and receive emotional signals. The introduction of this feature allows the management of behaviours to occur.

The final part of the brain to develop was the “cognitive” brain or “neocortex”. This is the part of the brain that sits above the limbic system and is responsible for making sense of what is going on both within and out in the world. This is often the distinction that is made about the difference between human beings and other animals. In particular the ability to be self-aware and have an awareness of internal representations of self and others. This may be disputed and if you are interested in this aspect you might want to read some of Jeffery Masson’s books (e.g When Elephants weep).

There is certainly some important developments that we can attribute to the cognitive brain including our ability to use language and our ability to integrate our internal systems and our experiences.

I will explore more about the triune brain later in this series. For now I would suggest that understanding these three “levels” of the brain can help the practitioner understand why a client might be “running” on automatic pilot in an unhelpful way. Engaging the cognitive brain is one way of helping the client to manage such knee jerk reactions.

I’m hoping the above is clear, once I get back to full health I’ll review the blogs I’ve written while less than healthy and reflect on them. I am curious to find out how my thinking is impacted by the loud shouting of both my reptilian and mammalian brains!

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The Brain, male or female?

Firstly I must start with an apology, there have been no blogs for the last two weeks! I have been rather unwell. It is interesting to note anecdotally the impact this has on the thinking, clarity and attention span. Clearly the brain is distracted when we experience illness.

Luckily for me what I have has a solution and I will be having an operation in the next couple of weeks that will in all likelihood put me back to full health. What it does do for me is help me understand how challenging life must be for people coping with ongoing illness to function mentally.

Here is my pledge, I will get back on track with writing my blog on the subject of the brain.

For now, you might want to consider some fairly recent discoveries about the difference between the male and female brain. Imaging scans show that there is a significant difference in the neural pathways of men and women. This difference is consistent across the samples explored.

The male brain is full of pathways running from the back of the brain to the front that stay within the hemispheres. Female brains show pathways crossing the hemisheres and running in the opposite direction to males.

My brain is still a bit fuzzy at the moment so I suggest you do a little research to find out more. Recently the BBC Horizon programme “Is your brain male or female?”, if you are in the UK this programme may still be on BBC iPlayer.

I am hoping to get my notes together for a fuller blog for next week. See you then.


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A Layperson’s guide to basic brain structure!

Following on from last week I thought it would be useful to start with a basic look at the “geography” of the brain and what is currently thought of as an overview of function.

I include here an image I drew so must first apologise if it is not completely in proportion… Do check out other images!

Brain lobes with label

The view shown here shows the frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes. It also shows the cerebellum (more on this in later blogs).

You probably already know that the brain has two hemispheres, left and right. The lobes are sub-divisions of the lobes and appear in both hemispheres

The primary responsibility of the occipital lobe is vision. Damage to this lobe leads to blindness in part of the visual field.

The parietal lobe deals with body sensations while the temporal lobe contributes to hearing and to complex aspects of vision.

The frontal lobe contains some important structures such as the motor cortex and the prefrontal cortex. For me one of the most interesting aspects of the prefrontal cortex is the understanding researchers such as Patricia Goldman-Rakic and others have presented. According to Goldman-Rakic the prefrontal cortex is responsible for behaviours guided by “internal representations” of the world. Some of this understanding has come from studying animals in ways that personally I feel a little uncomfortable about, however the learning is still valid.

For example a monkey that lacks a prefrontal cortex can learn to respond to simple external stimulus that does not require an internal representation to interpret such as knowing which coloured light will provide food and which to avoid. The same monkey struggles when presented with a task that requires an internal representation as provided by a delayed response task. For example a task that where approaching a green light thirty seconds after it has gone out in order to receive the reward is the correct response. According to Goldman-Rakic an internal representation of the past stimuli is required in order to complete this task. Her research demonstrates that the prefrontal cortex includes a large number of separate circuits representing past stimuli of different types e.g. visual, auditory etc.

For students of NLP this research and it’s connection to the brain can be very useful as a way of explaining the use of representational system in many of the processes and techniques. It provides a concrete foundation to linking brain function to change work. For those of you who are more based in the coaching field this is equally useful.

I will continue with this theme next week.

For those of you who like original references, if anyone knows of a more upto date reference of similar research do let me know:

Goldman-Rakic, P. S. (1987) Development of cortical circuitry and cognitive function, Child Development, 58, 601-622 (4)

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Why should Coaches and NLP Practitioners learn about the brain?

Polly and AmandaBefore launching into detail I thought it would be useful to talk a little more about why it is useful for Coaches and NLP Practitioners to learn about the brain. This week we have students attending NLP Master Practitioner and we will be exploring this issue during the programme. Most people who seek help from a Coach or an NLP Practitioner will be looking to form a relationship based on trust. Often this will come first from personal recommendation where another person has had a good experience with that coach or practitioner. The relationship will gradually develop as the process unfolds and the client experiences positive results. Sometimes recommendation is not enough or doesn’t exist. Under these circumstances a potential client may ask for evidence of credentials and training. This may include qualifications and CVs. They also want to have a sense that the coach/practitioner has a grounding in theory as well as practice. If you are able to explain the link between coaching / NLP Practice and the brain your client may feel re-assured. For clients with a pragmatic approach to life good foundation in theory, evidence and science becomes essential. Before going any further we also need to reality check. Are the links clear? Sadly, not particularly. At this stage many links written about in books and mentioned in seminars are just hypotheses. They are based on some very good logical thinking however in many cases the direct evidence is lacking. We are often working with suppositions that one thing is linked to another. This too is important for the coach and NLP Practitioner to remember and we need to cautious about over claiming anything. Having said all that using the brain and neuro-science as a metaphor can also be very powerful in helping people to make internal shifts and changes. Currently much of the evidence of change is anecdotal. What I find exciting is the desire of many practitioners both in the coaching and NLP fields to start collecting better evidence. As technology improves this evidence will slowly emerge and already there are small steps being taken in that direction. So in a nutshell why is this useful to a Coach or an NLP Practitioner?

  1. It’s interesting!
  2. Helps the client understand how processes may be working.
  3. Helps develop a more professional foundation for our fields.
  4. Can be used as metaphors to help learning and change.

These are just my initial thoughts and I may evolve my thinking as I contemplate this topic. Let me know what you think.

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What has neuro-science got to do with the coaching or NLP?

This week I am starting brand new blog. My intention is to share with you some of the current thinking about how neuro-science is beginning to provide links that support approaches in both coaching and NLP.

Firstly let me be clear, I am not a neuro-scientist. My background is psychology. I have a degree in psychology and an Msc in positive psychology. As a coach I am a member of AC and ICF and deliver recognised coach training. I am also a Master Trainer of NLP.

So as you can see I have an interest in the topic.

I will begin with an introduction laying the ground work for this series followed by a look at brain anatomy, structure and function. I will make links explainingneuro pictures IMG_1232 why this is useful for coaches and NLP Practitioners.

It is my intention to draw together ideas from a number of sources and please if you read a good article do forward me the link. Send it to my email address

Let me know what you would like to explore and I’ll do my best to oblige.

Next week, the introduction.


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Using Mental Rehearsal to create your future

As promised here is a reminder about how to use mental rehearsal.

So firstly a definition, mental rehearsal is the act of imagining yourself in a situation you normally find challenging and seeing yourself being successful.

I wonder how many of you recognise you already do this?

How many of you do the positive version?

And how many of you do the negative version known as “catastrophising”.

In catastrophising you imagine everything that could possible go wrong – the fantasies are endless. The amazing thing is, that sometimes the really off the wall things you worry about actually happen. This is the power of mental rehearsal, it is as if you become a magnet for the experiences you imagine. IMG_4140_ swan edited-1_edited-1

How much more powerful if you focus on positive outcomes!

Before I discuss how to do this let me give you some of the background, and we need to start by looking at how the brain works. Whenever we go into any situation our brain triggers what is known as a generalised memory. This generalised memory is sub-conscious and gives us unconscious messages about how to behave and how to feel in the situation. This generalised memory is the amalgamation and edited experiences from your past relating to a particular type of situation. The generalised memory has neuro pathways connected to a number of different “anchors” or stimuli. When an anchor is triggered the programme runs. For instance, you may have a particular programme that runs when faced with conflict, it may vary according to gender, age or status of the other person resulting in “knee jerk” reactions. Some knee jerk reactions are positive in which case I would advise you to leave them alone but others can be really unhelpful.

Mental rehearsal allows you to invent your own generalised memory to replace the old programme. It is replaced using constant repetition making the pathway to the new memory stronger than the pathway to the old one.

Mental Rehearsal Exercise

  • Close your eyes.
  • Imagine yourself in the situation in as much detail as possible.
  • Imagine everything happening the way you would like it to.
  • See yourself easily and effortlessly, overcoming any barriers or obstacles that may arise. This is vital, if you miss this stage out you may get thrown when obstacles appear in real life.
  • Imagine the situation coming to a successful and satisfying conclusion.
  • End by imagining some form of celebration or appreciation of your success. Get really silly with this and have some fun. The idea here is to intensify the positive experience and anchor it into the brain.

This blog marks a change to a new topic, Neuro-science, the brain and coaching.

I have just started a course myself as a student. The first module was this week and quite frankly it was a bit of a “brain dump”. There were things I recognised mixed in with some interesting new nuggets. In order to process this information I am going to start sharing it with you.

Let me have your thoughts.IMG_4139_ double daisy edited-1_edited-1

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Preparing for the future by visioning the outcome

There is an element used in all NLP techniques that also forms the basis of some complete processes. This element is called future pacingfog on the forest

We can use this element to motivate us to achieve our goals, remind us of behaviours we wish to stop and even check out if a particular outcome is even what we want.

How does it work?

Imagine that you have a goal you wish to achieve in the future. The idea is to make that imagined outcome as detailed as possible.

See yourself as you will be in the future having achieved the goal.

See what is different in your life as a result.

Listen to what you can hear in the future experience including what you are saying yourself, what you can hear around you and even what you are telling yourself internally.

Fully experience that future as if you have stepped into that version of yourself and you can now feel exactly what if feels like to have achieved that goal.

Bring all of that feeling back with you to motivate you in taking the next smallest step needed to achieve the goal. Repeat this process until you get there.

Sometimes when we do this we realise that the goal is not what we wanted after all and at other times we get confirmation.

We can also use this technique if we want to stop a behaviour. I’ll use the example of eating unhealthily. Before eating the food that in the present moment you may be craving imagine you have already eaten it, take yourself to several hours later.

How does your body feel, what are you saying to yourself? Do you have regrets?

Often this can be enough to allow us to make a healthier choice. We can do this with more complex issues around relationships, jobs, moving house etc.

Next week I will post a reminder on how to use mental rehearsal as a way of planning your future.

We have two events coming up if you are interested in NLP. If you are new to NLP we have a free two day workshop on 29th to 30th September in Crowborough, East Sussex.

If you are already an NLP Practitioner we have NLP Master Practitioner starting on 11th October.

Fox 282For details go to


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What you focus on is what you get!

When I first started working with people as a counsellor and more recently a coach I noticed that often my clients would have a really long list of things they didn’t want.

Butterfly on pink

For example, a single woman wanting a relationship would tell me all about the type of man she did not want to have a relationship with. She would be able to tell me in great detail about the personality, habits and even appearance of the man she under no circumstances wanted to meet.

What happened next?

She would come to sessions telling me how she kept meeting people who fit her description but nothing else.

This is creating your own reality in action.

Was she really creating these men? Of course not but she was giving her unconscious mind instructions about what to look out for.

Try this experiment right now. Look around the room you are in and notice anything that is Red.

Now close your eyes and notice anything ask yourself what in this room is green. Open your eyes and check. How much did you miss?

Our minds need direction on what to pay attention to and if we tell ourselves to ignore something we are merely highlighting the very thing we don’t want. For example, whatever you do right now do not think about chocolate. Urn

What happened?

So what do we need to do instead? For people looking for a relationship I give a task.

Write down on at least four sides of paper in detail what you would like in a partner. This focuses the mind on the right things and you are more likely to meet that person.

More next week.


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Constructive Day Dreaming, bringing the future to life

fog on the forestSo what is constructive day dreaming?

Here’s my definition, taking yourself into the future in a way that is helpful and meaningful.

For example, we have some building work starting here on Tuesday. The work is major structural changes to our bedroom level. It is easy to see that with a project like this there was some planning involved!

We have been in this house for about 18 months or so. The bedroom level has four bedrooms but only one is a reasonable size. A whole one third of the level is a balcony. Although the views are stunning the use of space is less stunning.

So we started to dream about how we would like things to be. In our imagination we created a layout and design. We imagined having all the space we could desire including two of the bedrooms becoming our individual studies or dens.

Anyone who has ever been involved in building work will know dreaming is not enough. We had to get planning permission, work out how we would pay for it and then find a trustworthy builder to do the work.

This is all very practical however in order to do this we need to put ourselves into our future and look back to see the end result. In NLP we call this future pacing. When we do this with practical projects such as this it can sometimes help us to check out if we even really want the change.

Sometimes we dream about something but when we get it we realise we don’t want it after all. Future pacing can sometimes help us get to that position without physically having to take the step.

Future pacing is also important with less tangible goals too. For example making a major life change or finding a relationship.

Next week I will expand on this subject and how we apply future pacing to relationships and major life changes.

By the way I’ve just had our website re-designed, there are still a few kinks but do take a look and let me know what you think. IMG_4012_ silver lining cloud edited-1_edited-2



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Day Dreaming without a safety net

Still with the focus on the future consider how you might live in the future in a positive way. Most people day dream.

What kind of day dreams do you have?Blue flower

For some it is about winning the lottery, meeting that perfect partner or making it as a star. I know I do from time to time have that day dream about the lottery!

Generally you could argue this is a harmless pastime, a little bit of fun perhaps. Unfortunately for some the impact of this kind of day dreaming is far from harmless.

It can be the beginning of a hope/disillusionment cycle. Take the lottery as an example. The person imagines they have won the lottery and all the changes it will make in their life. They make the dream compelling, colourful and attractive adding layer upon layer of detail.

Lottery draw comes and their numbers don’t come up. Disappointment!

This kind of day dreaming can become a formal of disengagement with reality leading to hopelessness and depression. In many ways it is a form of defence but can lead to unhappiness and lethargy in the long run.

wet birch

I’m not saying give up day dreaming, a little Walter Mitty is good for us all but to pin your hopes on a fantasy can lead to disaster. It is not enough to just think positive thoughts we need to do more and next week I will share some ideas with you on how day dream constructively.


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